Christmas and New Year in Kenya and Uganda.
I’ve been away from internet access in Uganda since the 2nd of January, so it’s been a while since I updated. So there’ll be two episodes coming in quick succession.
Christmas in Africa is a very different experience to the commercial, materialist bonanza of the season in the so-called developed world. ‘Developed’? I frequently question arrogance while I am in Africa. Yes, developed in the way that we have rejected many of the ‘cultural’ restrictions and belief systems of less educated Africa, but socially Africa has retained many of the more humane emotions that we have lost to the material ambitions and aspirations that seem so important to our way of life. Christmas here, where few have money anyway, is a family festival without the cost-counting I’ve come to associate with Christmas in the North.
Here, all travel home to commune with our families, few carrying those expensive gifts so much expected in other parts of the world. Of course, all here know that I represent that material world and are happy with my small gifts, but none are expected: it’s not an obligation, just a way to have fun together. The small children are excited by coloured pencils, a football, a toy car, a plastic flute. Maybe by giving these I am subverting their Christmas? But there is no expectation – that’s the difference. No one will count the petty cost of my small gifts: the fun is in having a rare parcel to open, wrapped in the only paper available, cheap and thin.
On the 27th, we drove to the border post, 30 miles away, to collect Alex, Precious, Keilah and little Jonathan for their ‘foreign’ holiday. For Precious and the children, this was a first time ‘overseas’, as we joked about the insignificant trickle of the Suam River that divides Uganda from Kenya just here on the lower slopes of Mt Elgon. The new road, so unlike the hard trail riding I used to enjoy so much between the two homes, makes for speedy transport now. I’ll miss the challenge of what used to be a long, hard ride but I must concede that the new blacktop will bring economic advantages, access and new wealth to this poor, inaccessible region.
Now the Sipi family arrive at the border without hassle; they can travel between the two countries quite informally. Many here share tribal roots anyway, on whichever side of the unthinking colonial borders they reside. Adelight herself is partly Ugandan, and everyone has relatives across these leaky borders. It’s more bureaucratic for me, but for them, they just walk across the decrepit bridge to the tumbledown corrugated iron and timber plank sheds that will soon be abandoned to history in the huge construction project to make a modern One Stop border. I liked the old border post, all mud, huts and dust-covered tents; it had a certain charm and overland adventure feel, and I became known from year to year as the old white man on the motorbike. Soon, it will be all show and impersonal formalities in big mirror-glass, concrete offices and the new soaring four lane bridge.
The Sipi family are a little overwhelmed to be away from home. But Keilah’s welcome of ‘her mzungu’ is delightful, knocking me backwards with a cannonball run, arms outstretched in excitement. For Precious, her generous welcome and cushion hug is perhaps thankfulness that at my advanced age I have survived the nine months since I last rode away from Sipi. My four year old namesake has lost all fear of his mzungu uncle and become a talkative, energetic child. And for Ugandans coming to Kenya it is a bit like getting back to Europe for me: relatively ordered, considerably less corrupt and richer. Poor, poor Uganda, struggling from decades of utterly corrupt government; vast world loans – that it was this week calculated will take 95 years to repay; crippling over-population and the vagaries of climate change adding to the toll of economic failures. A country in a complete mess. Kenya, by contrast, is a country of relative cultural freedom, reduction of old fashioned social pressures to conform and free(ish) from massive corruption that exists at every level in Uganda.
At home, the children soon bond again – Maria and Keilah have remained firm friends since we all went to Sipi in early 2020. Soon, Maria’s much-repaired bicycle and the playhouse that Rico converted from the old chicken shed, are causing noisy excited cries. We’ve put balloons in the trees to welcome the foreigners and there’s a festive Christmassy air about proceedings.
Next evening, I have small gifts for the Sipians too, opened with spontaneous dancing and excitement. It’s rare for anyone to get a gift here. The children dance to music from a phone and little Jonathan, at first reluctant (“Dancing is for girls!”) makes us all laugh as the most enthusiastic dancer of all, and last man standing. It’s all simple, humorous fun. JB2 has a small leather football that will not leave his hands for days, and a Chinese plastic police car that will be clutched all the way home in their matatu, but be demolished soon after they reach Sipi. Keilah has a Chinese plastic flute that will bleat away for days, until it too disintegrates in Sipi. For Alex, flower seeds from Harberton, and for Precious a framed photo of her with her mzungu, and a pair of secondhand shoes Adelight has chosen. It’s all simple and heartfelt, causing wild dances of joy. For Precious, a glass or three of very rare wine helps the excitement. Alex drinks his tea as usual. That night, JB2 can’t sleep from over-excitement.
Alex tours Rico’s compound and garage picking up ideas, and Precious and Adelight spend a few hours in town, for Kitale is like a big city beside Kapchorwa, the only town available to Precious. I introduce Alex to the hardware supermarket, unlike anything we can find in Uganda. Then we walk the four miles home, carrying a heavy can of floor paint – unknown across the border – and a box of plants from the big nursery on the outskirts of town. He’s amazed how much choice there is and reckons he’ll be a more frequent visitor now he can reach Kitale by matatu in four hours.
The Sipi family set off on the 30th, Alex always anxious for his business; Jonathan clutching his plastic police car and Keilah and Maria hugging goodbye amidst the construction works of the new border post and walking away over the broken down bridge to find a matatu home.
New Year’s Eve somehow peters out about 10.45 after Adelight bakes bread and samosas. “Well, it’s already New Year somewhere!” Adelight says as we go to bed.
“What was the best thing in 2022?” I ask Maria.
“Keilah came for Christmas.”
On the second day of the year, I ride round the mountain to Sipi in Uganda. The border’s only 30 miles from Kitale and the road is now smooth and quick, unlike the dust and dirt of so many years. At the border, which is being rebuilt as a One Stop Border – where I will be able to complete both Kenyan and Ugandan formalities in one go, I interrupt the customs officer from a game of billiards on a table behind the ramshackle offices. It’s not a busy border; maybe the new roads will increase traffic, but for now it is so remote and unhurried that I ride over the broken old colonial bridge across the Suam River trickle – a bridge on its absolute last legs, parapet gone on one side, barely hanging on, literally, on the other (the other side had gone three weeks later). It might just last until the big new bridge beside it is complete. At the corrugated hut that presently serves for Ugandan Immigration, I am recognised: “Hey, Jonathan, you are back! Welcome!” It’s Harison, the medical officer, who’s been stationed here for a couple of years through the pandemic, dealing with Covid testing and registration. We had several dealings as I came and went over this border during the pandemic years. I was one of the only mzungus to pass for two years. Now, it’s a mere formality: I must be entered in the dog-eared ledger and have my temperature taken, but it’s all a bit lacklustre and no one seems much interested. I ask Harison about ebola, for Uganda had an outbreak recently that excited all the prophets of doom to expect me to cancel my journey. “If we reach the 10th, it will be declared clear. It was dealt with quickly.” I am told that it was not only quick but draconian in this dictatorship: anyone trying to break the cordon round the infected area would be summarily shot! But it seems the measures worked and the infection contained…
The chubby lady at the immigration window recognises me too: there aren’t many white-haired mzungus coming this way on motorbikes; not may mzungus at all. She looks away from the Bollywood drama on the office TV long enough to take my details and then I ride away, trying to recognise the filthy, dusty township of Suam that I recollect from only last February and previous journeys. It’s all changed, bulldozed to rubble for the new international road. The shanties and shacks of the roadside traders have gone and the place looks positively refreshed. The road for the next 30 kilometres is still dust and gravel, but now it’s graded smoothly over the hills, waiting for tarmac.
My smile, already broad, stretches to a split as I enter Uganda. These people have such a capacity for laughter and smiles, without reserve or self-consciousness, despite their collapsed country. Hands wave everywhere and everyone turns to watch the mzee mzungu ride and bounce past. I’m a celebrity riding an avenue of welcome.
The road’s lost its attraction as one of the great trail rides of Africa. Where there was an eight foot wide pitted, stepped, rocky track is now a thirty metre wide swathe of graded red murram, and later of smooth blacktop. The earth moving that has gone on these past two or three years is astounding. More crippling debts to China, to add to the 95 year long repayments.
Soon, after the straggly town of Bukwo, where I used to bounce and crash down the ‘main street’ on steps of rock and dust, standing on the foot-pegs for balance, I begin the curling climb on these slopes of Mount Elgon. This used to be a tough ride requiring some rough trail riding experience. I loved it, but always feared being caught by rain on this slippery, cloying surface when it got wet. It’s difficult to recognise the roughest bits that I came to know: the steep hill of ankle-deep dust where I had to ski downhill to a broken concrete bridge; the deeply rutted section that leaned outwards towards the steep slopes and was hardly passable on four wheels; the hill where the clagging mud built up so much on my wheels that it stalled my engine; places I struggled and slithered in dense red dust; where I’ve gasped into meagre tea houses gagging for liquid to quell the dust; where I’ve tumbled off in ruts and had to lift the bike from craters and steps on a ‘road’ no better than a cattle path. Now, the Chinese have moved the mountains, displaced the forests and made a wide tar road on which I can sweep along, riding with one hand – the other for waving – as I gaze into the magnificence of limitless expanses of northern Uganda displayed far below, the blue landscape pimpled with old volcanic hills, waving matoke trees waving artlessly in the foreground.
To be riding along in this high mountain scenery (I’m over 2000 metres) on my responsive little bike, gulping in the freshest air, under a sparkling blue dome of sky sprinkled with snowy clouds on a summer’s day, with half Uganda waving excitedly at me – in the knowledge that at my destination there awaits an ebullient, heartfelt welcome – well, life doesn’t come much better!
The last half mile of my journey still holds the challenges of trail riding, more so this year after the interminable rainfall. I take the short cut from the main road towards Rock Gardens. The track is serrated by the recent rains. It’s now maybe the biggest obstacle to our Rock Gardens project: customers can’t get here in wet season weather. And in this country, the prospect of road improvement for a poor rural neighbourhood is remote.
I vibrate down the track, teeth rattling. They’ve heard me coming. Precious begins to dance, Keilah and JB are running helter-skelter as Alex holds open the wooden gate beneath its thatched roof. As soon as I dismount, the children launch themselves at their mzungu. It’s very charming; I’ve become very fond of these two: quiet, smiling, warm-hearted Keilah and obstreperous, talkative, grubby Jonathan.
Precious has been busy decorating ‘Jonathan’s Room’, one of the two round thatched houses, with flower posies in bottles, in wraps of cloth buried amongst the pillows and intricately folded towels: skills she learned working in the big western Uganda hotel where she and Alex met. Keilah has been busy blowing up balloons to make the place festive. Later, as I look around the gardens, I think perhaps Precious picked every flower on the property for my arrival! In the nine months since I was here, the gardens have flourished. Given enough water, Africa provides sun for growth. Trees that we planted as seedlings in February are now higher than my head; flowerbeds in which we sowed seeds from England, are bright with abundant plants – (currently shorn of flower heads!); the local shrubs have grown luxuriant already. The place looks well established. Ramps that I left as brown dust and packed earth are now sloping lawns. We are well on the way to creating the botanical garden of our dreams.
But where will we find the customers? Alex, and I upbraid him for this once again, has extended the ‘1818’ restaurant with two balconies, back and front. They are cleverly decorated with timber palisades and woven banana leaf ceilings, wide cut boards for floors; there’s new furniture: chairs and tables and fine local wood settees. But there’s STILL no kitchen! Alex has such a vision of how he wants his business to look, but skates over the practicalities. When he built his raised restaurant, ten feet above the gardens, he constructed a framework of heavy posts and joists – in a country notorious for termite infestation. I accused him of building the roof before the foundations, and we had to spend several hundred pounds putting heavy stone walls beneath the flimsy structure. He loves the decoration, but has little practical skill, and his local builders are appalling: talentless, poor workers and with no tools beyond a hammer and machete.
He’s started the new kitchen and I can see the worst stonework of my experience, laid by so-called stone masons. It’s double the size we need and Alex has been bamboozled by the inept local builders. They’ve taken the (my) money and gone, leaving a complete mess. My advice to Alex is that we knock it down and start again, and forget the hundredweights of cement and sand that have been wasted on three inch wide joints in a ridiculous 3:1 mortar mix that is the custom here. No one ever uses initiative, they just do things ‘the way it is done’, even if it’s wrong. Every joint in the pipework in my room leaks: carried out by a so-called local plumber; the expensive double latrine a ‘proper’ contractor built (£2000) has one stall for the ladies beside another stall with a pipe in a corner, just like the one next door for the men’s urinal. “Sorry, Alex,” I say, “women don’t piss that way! Where’s the hole in the floor?” He hasn’t an answer, except that the contractor took the money but it wasn’t enough. I will have to use my ingenuity to find an answer…
But where will we get customers? “Oh, they will come!” says Alex confidently. But he needs to concentrate on marketing now; he needs a decent kitchen; a reliable electric connection; to complete the toilet block; to lobby for road repairs; get his website finished, pamphlets distributed. But he’s more interested for me to build him a bread oven and to chose crockery!
Before we start to knock down the kitchen, such as it is, or reshape the ladies loo, we spend a day visiting relatives. Alex was born here and most of his extended family live round and about amongst the matoke trees and shambas. I find it difficult to find my way about: we seem to approach places I know by different routes every time, but then the growth is fast and furious and the landscape always changing at ground level.
We sit with Aunt Khalifa, Alex’s oldest aunt and his supporter amongst the family. She’s a cheerful old lady and formal in her greetings, going down on her knees to greet us in the customary fashion in Uganda, a mark of respect – sadly, always from women to men… We drink sweet black tea in her somewhat tumbledown compound. The houses are looking rather frail, a sign that she too is getting frailer, for she always patched the mud and dung plaster walls scrupulously. Khalifa is in her mid 80s.
We visit another old lady, wife of Alex’s clan’s senior member. She is in a very sorry state, virtually comatose and unmoving. I’d guess she’s had a bad stroke, added to a broken leg and crumbling back. She was in the hospital for three months, but no one has the money for that, so the harsh fact is that it was better for the family to bring her home where she can die slowly without further expense. Life is cruel in rural communities in Africa. She’ll lie in that dingy earth hut on a locally made log bed and aged blankets until she wastes away enough that she mercifully dies, however long it takes, with no relief or comfort.
Elsewhere, we are happily welcomed into crude homes of mud and sticks with few possessions or comforts. But the greetings are warm and generous, and tea or food is always offered. I shake hands a hundred times; children come running; greetings are called. Sometimes Alex translates. One group, sitting conversing until we arrive unexpectedly, a major event in their day, comments to Alex, “You were lucky. You got a white man like him – who also likes people!” They’re only used to proud white men representing charities, big business or the church; one who mixes with them in these rural villages is a bit of a phenomenon. My support can create jealousies too, though, in a rural community without education to understand that it is Alex’s intellect and hard work ethic that has brought my aid to the family.
Later, we spend a couple of hours sitting under a stained canvas awning – everything here’s stained with the brown of the earth after this very long rainy season – with Alex’s parents and his younger brother, Nick. Nick and his age-mates recently went through the – to me – barbaric circumcision ceremonies: a public ordeal that’s always explained away (even when it goes wrong and infections set in…) as ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ It’s a huge party time in Uganda and various communities in Kenya – as in much of Africa. Bizarrely, Nick’s walking about wearing a skirt (boys in skirts is a sight I’ll see quite often in the next days) – the reason may be obvious! – to which there’s no stigma attached – it’s ‘tradition’. He’s now officially ‘a man’ after all, with all that means in Africa: he can father and abandon children in or out of marriage, be waited on by his womenfolk, and drink away the family money… But I’m being cynical: Nick’s a decent young man whom I like, and he’s shortly off to university, an educated, thinking man. But there’s the rub: education… So few in this country enjoy its benefits, which is why crossing that border back to Kenya is like returning to a ‘developed’ country. It’s so sad: this beautiful country with its friendly population, largely uneducated and with a belief that giant families prove virility and strength.
Passing another broken down earth, stick and zinc sheet dwelling, I photograph tiny pretty Joanne, cradling an even tinier baby, Praise, her most recent sibling – the eighth child of her worn-looking young mother. There’ll probably be more, in this failing country where three quarters of the population is now below 30 years old; a country that has grown from 5 million in 1950 and is estimated to exceed 90 million by 2050… And a mere 2% over 65… One is left with little hope, except in odd pockets such as this small family, and Alex’s determination to have only two children whom he can educate well towards a better future.
We knocked down and undid most of the local workers’ inept efforts on the new kitchen and started again to a design by the intercontinental mzee designer. It’s frustrating working here: there are no useful tools and few available materials – and absolutely nil skilled labour of any sort. The manual labour that is available is slow, unmotivated and has little understanding of what is required. Often, it’s quicker just to do it myself… It does sometime feel that Sipi is out in the sticks. Even ‘masons’ have no concept of bonding stones, just piling them one on another blathered in inches of over-strength cement. Corners have no joints, wall sections usually built between softwood timber posts which will quickly be weakened by termites. No structure is built with any expectation of lasting more than a few years. I tell the ‘builders’ that I live in a stone house that is at least 200 years old, in a village with a church built over a thousand years ago, to their open-mouthed amazement. All here is short-termism. I doubt there’s a building within 50 miles that dates back more than 40 years, except an occasional unmaintainted colonial era ruin or civic memorial.
It’s hard, grubby work for a fastidious Westerner. The sun beats down, the muck and dust disturbs my tidy mind. I’m soon coated in dirt, and there’s only cold water in which to wash – and this red dust doesn’t really come off, most of it ends on the towel. By mid-evening, I am fading and most nights abed by nine. But the pay-off is long sound sleep in the fine old bedsheets I have persuaded Precious to keep for me: thick ancient continental sheets that must have arrived in some mtumba bale.
I watched a shocking documentary about the mtumba wear we send to Africa: the secondhand clothes that our charity shops offload here. The film was made in Ghana, where the clothes are called Broni Wawo – ‘dead white men’s clothes’. It seems that a mere 40% of the clothes and goods that are baled up and shipped to Africa – many tons at a time, from Europe and North America, are actually resale-able. The rest is causing yet another problem for Ghana: many container-loads are towed to landfill every day, and much more of it to informal mountains of rubbish along the ocean, where it washes into the sea and becomes vast knotted clumps of fabric, much of it plastic-based that will take decades to break down and meanwhile poisons the oceans of the world, mankind’s major dumping ground. All in the name of fashion and disposability built into capitalist economies. Another example of our arrogance towards this continent, sending rubbish clothes and dumping our problems on another part of the world less able to deal with it. Out of sight, out of mind…
Well, a good start to 2023, amongst my families in Africa. Families I value more with every visit to this unique continent…